the second life of Marvin Sordell
Today, Marvin Sordell announced his retirement from professional football. You've probably never heard of him. I follow football and remember him playing for England U21s and for Bolton but aside from his more recent interview pieces, to me, a follower of top level football, he was just another former England age group star who didn't quite crack the top level.
There's no shame in that. I never cracked the top level of rugby and the Premier League is one of the world's harshest sporting environments. You are liable to be replaced at any point, someone from anywhere in the world can be parachuted in to take your place. You are eminently replaceable.
I sometimes enjoy winding up those who work in a 'profession', law, medicine and the like, by saying that being a professional footballer is the world's most meritocratic job and that they deserve their high salaries.
This inevitably draws scorn.
But think about it. The barrier to entry is close to zero. An able body and access to a football of some sort. To be a doctor or a lawyer, you need to be able to read. Then you actually need to be intelligent. Then you need to be able to access the training required to join one of those professions, complete it, stay the course and qualify. The pool of available talent has narrowed considerably after these steps.
A professional footballer needs no qualification other than his ability with a football. They can now come from almost anywhere in the world - you don't even need to speak the same language as your teammates to achieve success. Plenty don't, it's a stick being used to beat Gareth Bale with right now and he's won the Champion's League with Real Madrid several times.
Sordell achieved professional success by merely becoming a professional. That is hard enough. He's moved on from football at the relatively young age of 28. People think you're nuts if you retire from professional sport without being forced but he has a lot to say on the matter:
“I’ll be honest though, the ugly side of the game that many of us are exposed to, has had a hugely detrimental effect on my mental health. I witnessed, and was on the receiving end of racism on several occasions and have seen an incredible amount of bullying, manipulation and verbal abuse to an extent which for many leaves a dirt stain on this industry.”
He's evidently experienced consistent abuse at odds with his personal values and the professed values of sport. Sometimes, you realise that at the professional level, these values are malleable, bending to suit whoever's agenda is at the fore that day. Sordell calls it,
“a beautiful game with an ugly persona”
When you do something that you've always loved and it lets you down, it can be heartbreaking, calling into question why you're putting yourself through it. Sordell goes on to state that,
“The combination of these aspects allow me to move on from being a professional football player, knowing that I will be a happier man, and also be able to love the game again, in a way that I haven’t for many years.”
Reading the Endgame interviews, you can tell that some players feel the same. The positive aspects of sport are not necessarily traits that are confined to the professional level, but are usually more present at a lower level. The insinuation is that money corrupts the game but it's also the player as commodity, the dehumanisation of people that leads to harsh treatment.
Sordell has turned to writing, both poetry and prose, completing a first book and writing a poem, Denis Prose, an anagram for depression.
“I found it difficult when I was younger because you can’t easily be yourself in football. We have no freedom of identity. I’ve always been Marvin Sordell, the footballer. Your whole life is contained and dictated by football. It’s not healthy.”
It's difficult as a young athlete, or one whose employment status is not secure, to be honest, to be vulnerable or to share your other interests. Difference breeds suspicion and activities away from the field are seen as unnecessary distractions. Sordell found freedom on the field, 'the moment you go onto the pitch the depression disappears', but found that once the whistle blew for full-time, he was back in a psychological prison.
Writing helped him to explore other sides of himself; once he started, ‘it felt like layers and layers were coming away until I was left with a real open version of myself.'
Once you've tasted this authenticity, you've allowed yourself to become who you feel you are, to be told that it's not true or not appropriate is too difficult to bear. The dissonance of holding two versions of yourself, one no lesser than the other but unable to be expressed, is cancerous. It will grow and consume you.
In his interview from last year, I was struck by this sentence from the journalist:
This dual identity shapes him. Professional football has scarred Sordell; and the secret world of writing has helped him.
A dual identity is not a positive and in my work on sporting transition, I've been interested in the change in personal identity, how you tell your own story. Do you stop being an athlete when you retire? In French, 'tu es un rugbyman' is how it sounds; you are a rugby man. You aren't a professional rugby player but you are a man of the game. This is probably a limiting belief but it also holds you to a standard of ethics and of beliefs that as stated earlier, exists at all levels of the sport, on and off the field. This is not something easily put aside.
The ideal is that you can be both. We contain more than one interest, we are more than one label. To be yourself is to be a whole person, not just the version of you that makes other people feel comfortable, able to file you in a box marked athlete. Don't mitigate yourself for the benefit of others, reducing yourself in the process.
To be fair, Sordell seems to know this already. I hope he really believes it and can make his peace with his athletic career.
“I’m a footballer when I play football – but I’m also a writer. I’m a person with more than one identity. When you put them together you have the real me.